Making sure your workforce represents the diversity of the local community can often be a challenge, reports Sally O'Reilly.
Recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce is a central responsibility for all councils. Not only does this ensure that they accurately reflect the community, it also means they are recruiting the best candidates from the widest talent pool.
But each authority will face different challenges. For councils in some inner-city areas, this is complicated by the fact that theBNPhas won a number of seats in the past seven years.
Since May this year, the party has held 49 seats in councils inEngland. Local authorities withBNPcouncillors include Stoke-on-Trent City Council,CharnwoodBC, Bradford CityMDCandBurnleyBC. And Barking & DagenhamLBChas the highest number of seats, with 12BNPcouncillors elected.
Barking & Dagenham chief executive Rob Whiteman says the council is determined to ensure that its workforce will continue to reflect the ethnic diversity of the community.
"For many years the council had the most homogenous and stable population inLondon," he says. "Over recent years, the picture has been changing, and changing fast."
The borough's diversity is increasing more rapidly than any other inBritain, not only in terms of overall numbers, but also in terms of the diversity of new communities moving into the area.
To reflect this, the authority has taken active steps to increase the number of black and minority ethnic (BME) staff.
"By actively promoting our approach to equality, we saw the percentage of our BME staff increase from a low base of 3.2% in 2000-01 to 11% in 2003-04 and 15% today," says Mr Whiteman. This is reflected at all levels of seniority about 10% of the top 10 earners in the council are from BME communities.
But, with the BME percentage of the population estimated to be around 30% by the next census, there is no room for complacency. And the election of theBNPcouncillors has put the borough in the national spotlight.
"Inevitably, this raised questions about race, and senior officers discussed staff and community concerns with the new councillors, so the council could ensure good relations with staff and community groups," he comments.
There were also widespread concerns about what their election might mean. And a number of incidents - in which members of the public were aggressive towards BME staff, referring specifically to the election result - fuelled this anxiety.
"As a council, we have a duty of care to staff, and were concerned to continue to ensure a representative workforce in the light of our increasingly diverse community," stresses Mr Whiteman.
"If Barking & Dagenham gained a reputation as a place where it was uncomfortable for BME staff to work, then our recruitment profile could rapidly change."
The council took action on a number of fronts: issuing statements pledging total commitment to equalities, and dealing vigorously with any issues of harassment; meeting with all BME staff and community groups to reinforce these messages; updating recruitment material to make sure that positive statements about equality were prominent; holding exit interviews to see what issues were raised by staff leaving the organisation; and running training workshops for managers.
As a result, applications from BME communities have stayed consistently high, averaging about 40%.
"It's important that managers have confidence in dealing with these issues, rather than worrying that they may not be using the appropriate language, or not expressing their ideas in an acceptable way," says Mr Whiteman.
"We ran workshops giving them the chance to talk all these issues through, so that they had developed their ideas and were clear about how to address this."
The success of Barking & Dagenham in tackling this issue shows the value of being proactive and following up a strategy in a consistent way. The council is the first in the country to be awarded the Committed to Equality standard, an independent accreditation for public bodies.
And a staff survey at the end of 2006 showed a positive response from BME staff about the council as an employer.
Barking & Dagenham's experience illustrates many of the points highlighted by the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development in its advice on good practice when managing diversity. This includes promoting a culture of respect and dignity and making staff in senior posts champions of diversity.
Be proactive plan ahead and hone a long-term recruitment and retention strategy
Be clear make sure that all recruitment material sends out the message that you welcome applications from black and minority ethnic (BME) communities
Be consistent all recruitment and retention planning should be followed up, and exit patterns studied to see why BME staff are leaving
Overreact to external influences if your recruitment strategy is sound, you should be able to cope with unforeseen events
Assume that your policies are getting the message across
Forget to seek out the views of staff, and assess the reasons that BME communities apply for posts, and why they later move on